Greta Kreuz was not a smoker. In fact, she considered herself healthy— she was a runner who kept on top of doctor’s appointments. But in 2012, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Then she was misdiagnosed when it came back a year later.
Kreuz, 58, and a veteran news reporter for ABC7 in Washington D.C., had been experiencing a slight pulling sensation in her sternum. While it wasn’t painful and happened intermittently, she mentioned it to her doctor. He had her get a chest X-ray, which came back abnormal, and then a CT scan, which revealed a small tumor on the lower left lobe of her left lung.
“He really, I think, saved my life,” Kreuz told FoxNews.com of her doctor’s “abundance of caution” approach to checking out her seemingly harmless issue. Otherwise, she had no symptoms.
Dr. Albert Rizzo, senior medical advisor to the American Lung Association, said finding lung cancer when there are no symptoms is ideal because it means the cancer has not progressed. Lung cancer tumors can grow up to a centimeter in diameter and— when they lie an area with pain fibers or block blood vessels or airways— can grow to become symptomatic. At that point, it’s usually too large to remove all or part of the lung in a curative fashion.
“Unfortunately, more advanced lung cancer has a 4 to 5 percent chance of living five years; if it’s found earlier, the survival rate is more than 50 percent,” Rizzo, the chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine for Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Del., told FoxNews.com. “Early detection, at stage 1, is ideal.”
Kreuz’s mother had been a chain smoker but never had cancer. Her older sister had been a smoker and died of lung cancer in 2004.
Secondhand smoke and radon are known risk factors for lung cancer, but smoking is by far the biggest cause of the estimated 158,040 deaths in 2015 in the U.S., which accounts for about 27 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Lung Association. Genetics also have an effect, which may explain why Kreuz’s mother, a lifelong smoker, did not get cancer, but her sister, who also smoked, did, Rizzo noted.
“Genetics play a role, but we don’t have all the exact explanation why one individual would get cancer or not,” Rizzo said.
Kreuz went back to work five weeks after undergoing a lobectomy, doing a news reporting series on her story for which she won an Emmy Award. The surgery revealed that her tumor was stage 1B because it had touched the lining of her lungs. Various consultations with specialists led her to decide to forgo treatment and have regular CT scans to monitor her lung health.
In fall 2013, Kreuz had a cough that wouldn’t go away, but she wasn’t concerned because co-workers had been experiencing similar symptoms. Also, as part of a research study on early lung cancer detection, she had been getting low-dose CT scans every three months— and the scans were clear.
Her pulmonologist put her on inhalers, steroids and other treatments for allergies or sinus problems, but nothing helped.
“I kept saying in my head, ‘I knew in my gut, something was wrong.’ I kept pressing it,” Kreuz said.
After her doctor did a bronchoscopy, Kreuz got the diagnosis that her cancer was back on New Year’s Eve 2013. There was a tumor in her left airway, and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
“It was a real shock. This time I had symptoms, and it wasn’t just a little tumor they could cut off. This was big,” she said.
When Kreuz went in for surgery to have the tumor removed, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital found that the cancer had metastasized into the lining of her lungs. She had stage 4 cancer, and the surgery was canceled. Rather than cut out her lung— major surgery that would delay her chemotherapy treatment— she chose to undergo chemo and is now on a maintenance regimen with a single drug. Her most recent CT scan showed there were no signs of cancer— the tumor is gone and her lymph nodes are clear.
In October 2014, Kreuz retired from ABC7 after 26 years and now acts as an advocate with the American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE national initiative, sharing her story to lift the stigma from the disease and remind individuals to be their own health advocates. May 10 to 16 is Women’s Lung Health Week.
In her work, she’s met many others who were also initially misdiagnosed and ended up with stage 4 lung cancer.
“For me, it was like, ‘No! No! I didn’t deserve this, nobody deserves it, but more and more people are getting it … I can’t even tell you the number of people I know that are marathon runners, who are healthy,” she said. “It just totally hits you upside the head unexpectedly.”
According to Lung Force, every eight minutes, a woman in the U.S. dies of lung cancer. It’s the No. 1 cancer killer of women, but only 1 percent of women see it as a leading women’s cancer.
“It is a cancer that deserves awareness because we need to advocate for more research money to help find early tumors and treatments that are more effective and allow long-term survival for individuals,” Rizzo said. “We can put a dent in the number of people who die.”
In December 2013, the U.S Preventative Services Task Force recommended annual low-dose CAT scans for high-risk individuals: adults ages 55 to 80 who have a history of smoking 30 packs a year within the past 15 years.
“Beyond that, there’s no good way to screen at this time,” Rizzo said, adding that research is being done on blood and breath tests.
Now in remission, Kreuz, a mother to two adult children, is focused on enjoying her life as a survivor.
“You think it’s a death sentence; it’s not, I’m out working out every day,” she said. “I like to say that I’m living in Technicolor— I used to live in color.”